Tag: <span>Rachel Potts</span>

As has been mentioned elsewhere, I’m currently planning to build a community website for the ISTC and thought it time to get you all a heads up and ask for some help.

The idea for the website was borne from the members panel that Rachel Potts ran last year, which cited “reducing the feeling of isolation” as an important benefit of being a member of the ISTC. It will also help to promote and publicise the ISTC and hopefully become a valued resource for technical communicators in the UK.

As such the new website will compliment the current ISTC website, and has two main aims:
– to encourage a sense of community amongst members, enabling all members to contribute and discuss related topics
– become the ‘online home’ for technical communicators in the UK

Initial thoughts and ideas include:
– sections for the local area groups
– a directory of ISTC member blogs (and other blogs of note)
– online forums
– regular updates (ISTC news or articles of interest)

The sky is the limit to be honest, but to better refine the list of requirements, and come up with a set of features I’m looking for some volunteers. I’m looking for your ideas and suggestions.

This website is for everyone to use, and it’s up to us to decide what features it will and won’t have, so please get in touch if you are interested.


Better documentation lowers support calls, is a widely held assumption and one I’m hoping to prove in the coming months. With our new knowledge centre in place, and Google Analytics tracking how many people are visiting it, I’ll soon have stats for my side of the fence.

Early numbers (from the past two weeks) show that more people are looking at the Documentation area of our website than are looking at the Support area, but then the knowledge centre (part of the Documentation area) is new so that’s only to be expected and I’m really not expecting to get a true picture of how things are going until late January next year.

Fingers crossed.

With thanks to Rachel Potts for her post on what web analytics can do for technical communications.


Helter Skelter

When I get to the bottom
I go back to the top of the slide
Where I stop and turn
and I go for a ride
Till I get to the bottom and I see you again!!!!

Ever get that feeling that you’ve been here before?

I write this blog post with haste as I’m halfway through the penultimate week of a particularly arduous project. Not only are we releasing a new version of the product, but we are completing the first major stage of our move to Author-it.

Overall the migration has been pretty painless. There are still some Word templates issues to work around and getting to grips with Variants has still to be tackled, but overall we are pretty happy with our choice. The only major gripe we have is partly our (ok, MY) own fault, and it’s here that I’ll offer the most valuable tip I can.

If you are migrating legacy content to Author-it (we were moving from Structured FrameMaker), make sure you thoroughly test and check the import settings. Time constraints had me rush this stage and we ended up paying for it, spending far too long cleaning up rogue topics than we had planned. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and it does mean that the documentation is now far more consistently written and styled than it had been. However, going through some 5000 odd topics by hand wasn’t the greatest use of our time!

Soon we will be looking to how we can leverage the output to provide better access to information, feeding into the developer community website we have already built, and improving how we deliver information alongwith our product set.

For the former we have taken some inspiration from the presentation by Rachel Potts and Brian Harris (Red Gate Software) at last years UA Conference, titled Delivering Help in a Support Portal. For our implementation the Publications team will take the lead, and it’ll be interesting to see where it takes us. Web 2.0, anyone?

We will also be looking to provide better online help by introducing Keystone Topics, as suggested by Matthew Ellison. Author-it should make these topics, which are the first topics the user lands on when they start the online help and which provide sensible links to common information (rather than just providing repurposed user manuals), very easy to build.

Two of the team will be in Cardiff for the conference this year so it’ll be interesting to see what we learn there and how we can really start to leverage Author-it in more and more powerful ways. I’m definitely keen to start innovating what we do and, in a few weeks time, we won’t have any further barriers to stop us.

Tech Work

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Notes and thoughts from Day 2 of the User Assistance Conference

Session 1 – Juliette Fleming – XML Tagging and Search Facets
An early start for an interesting session in which Juliette outlined how Oracle have introduced search Facets to their online help system. Essentially a facet is a tagged chunk of information or help topic, and their help system has been coded to make the most of these by using the tags to decide in which context the help topic should be used.

This allows their help system to display information, for example, for a given product version, language, product and topic type when the user clicks to get help from the application. The facets are also used to present, essentially, pre-populated searches as a starting point (or Keystone Concept, perhaps) for the context-sensitive help. A smart idea.

Session 2 – Tony Self – Implementing Collaborative Authoring with Wikis
I didn’t attend this session but heard it was a good introduction to the topic for beginners. Having presented on this topic myself I figured it was safe to take some time out.

Session 3 – Rachel Potts and Brian Harris – Delivering Help in a Support Portal
An entertaining presentation on a topic that matches some of my thoughts of where my team and I should be heading. The core problem that Red Gate had was to tie together the myriad of information sources into a cohesive whole as they figured that their users didn’t care where or how they got the information they needed, even though Red Gate offered many distinct to try and guide them to a particular type of information.

With a little effort they came up with a solution which included restyling some of the existing information, and taking a new direction for the online help, recognising that most of their users would look for Support rather than Help (acknowledging that most people don’t like to admit they need ‘help’!). Shifting to Author-it for their technical writing team, they post-process the output to provide better metadata which enables the search engine and supporting presentation framework components to offer the best information at the best time.

As we are moving to Author-it it was very interesting but I was a little disappointed to find out (when chatting to Rachel and Brian later on) that they are ditching Author-it because, when creating new versions of topics, you lose the associated metadata. I’m hoping that’s just a bug that has yet to be fixed and will be checking that with Author-it very soon.

Session 3 – Dave Gash – Introduction to XSL Transforms
Following on from his presentation the day before, Dave suggested that this would be an easy to follow session on a fairly simple topic (even though it can end up being very complex to pull together).

However, having dabbled with XSLT myself I decided to sit this one out and spent some time chatting to some of the vendors.

Session 4 – Leisa Reichelt – Practical User Research
Having been an avid reader of disambiguity.com, where Leisa blogs on User Experience topics, and as it wasn’t directly a technical writing focussed presentation, I was looking forward to this presentation. Leisa’s style and delivery kept it interesting and informative, and seemed to be very well received.

Taking the role as a user advocate is a common one for a technical writer, and a lot of what Leisa was discussing was simply taking that a step further. She offered some suggestions on how to capture better user information as well as offering some simple reasoning that shows you can do useful research with a small set of subjects, and a simple model that shows that, without all the correct design processes in place “changing buttons on a user interface is like shuffling chairs on the titanic”.

As I’ve mentioned here on this blog, I’m a big fan of technical writers pushing (or encroaching?) into other areas. For many smaller companies without the budget to hire a dedicated usability professional it’s good to know that even a small effort in this area can make a difference, and that effort will mean a better understanding of your audience which is always a good thing.

Session 5 – Matthew Ellison – Creating Table Styles in CSS
Again, another session I skipped largely because I’m quite comfortable styling with CSS and a quick google suggests similar information is widely available online.

Session 6 – Prof. Geoffrey K Pullum – Far from the Madding Gerund
I have to admit that it was with a wary head that I took my seat for the closing session of the conference. I’ll happily admit (and lord knows there is plenty of proof right here in this blog) that whilst my writing is acceptable the finer points of grammar are occasionally ignored, so the thought of listening to a grammarian waffle on about deontic modality or ditransitive verbs didn’t exactly thrill me.

So it was with some humility and shame that I apologies to Professor Pullum as his talk was fascinating, funny and hugely enjoyable. Seating his advice in examples, and several quotes from The Importance of Being Earnest, he assured as all that our writing was perfectly acceptable and that we should ignore people who seek to enforce arcane and just plain wrong grammar rules. Split your infinitives if you must, dangling your modifiers and feel free to end that sentence with a preposition if you feel the sentence warrants it.

Ultimately, Prof. Pullum assured us, we are all professionals and the way we write is accurate for the audience. That and the fact that a lot of grammatical advice is complete nonsense.

If you get the chance to hear him speak, do so. Even if only to hear his range of accents, all of which are executed so well I have to wonder if he spends some time practising them.